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ERC

MULTISENSE Report Summary

Project ID: 617678
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Periodic Report Summary 2 - MULTISENSE (Lifespan Development of Typical and Atypical Multisensory Perception)

Daily life confronts us with information across multiple senses in parallel and we must somehow unite these sensations into a coherent interpretation of the world. The MULTISENSE project is a four-year venture funded by the European Research Council (ERC) examining how the human brain comes to develop this complex ability, and how certain genetically ‘pre-marked’ brains can come to experience multisensory integration in remarkable ways. People with the neurological condition synaesthesia have multisensory experiences to an extreme degree: synaesthetes might experience tastes as colourful moving shapes in the visual field, perceive sounds as odours or flavours, or feel colours as tactile sensations against the skin. These unusual sensations have been traced to structural and functional differences in the brains of synaesthetes. Although rare, synaesthesia can give profound insights into normal sensation because all people experience crossed sensations to an implicit degree, and often in ways that mimic synaesthetes. The MULTISENSE project examines the lifespan development of multisensory integration in synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes, considering changes that occur throughout childhood, and older age. How does synaesthesia emerge in children? How can it be tested for? Are synaesthetes predisposed from birth to map across modalities in specific ways? Do multisensory abilities decline in elderly synaesthetes? How might this inform us about multisensory changes in all people?

Thus far, the MULTISENSE project has produced a state-of-the-art assessment tool to identify child synaesthetes, and is in the process of validating this touch-screen tool on 3000 children of primary school age. It has additionally developed two companion tools testing for two variants of synaesthesia with pencil-and-paper testing booklets. It has further developed behavioural tests and experimental techniques to evaluate multisensory functions in adult synaesthetes, and a state-of-the-art web application which will allow others to interface with this testing library via a URL (The Synaesthesia Toolkit; www.syntoolkit.org).We have found that children with synaesthesia have benefits in other domains (fast processing speed, improved memory span) and that synaesthesia appears to develop around psycholinguistic knowledge available to all children (e.g., of statistical word frequency; letter-word associations). As well as these benefits however, we have also found evidence that synaesthesia may be tied with elevated rates of anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, meaning that an early test for synaesthesia in childhood could help identify those with a predisposition for other conditions. We have also ruled out the likelihood of an X-linked inheritance to the condition by showing equal numbers of synaesthetes in males and females, and have also shown that synaesthesia is tied to differences in brain structure. We have also found that all children may be sensitive to cross-modality in early language learning since adults learn artificial languages to a greater degree if the language is ‘iconic’ (i.e., where the shape of the word mimics features of its meaning; e.g. “sniff” contains the ‘nasal consonant’ N and refers to the nose).

In adults, we have validated a widely used testing tool for synaesthesia, but found that the number of synaesthetes identified by this conventional diagnostic declines in aging. We have traced this decline to changes in the colour quality of synaesthetic colours, which become significantly less saturated as synaesthetes grow older. As a result of this desaturation, older synaesthetes are detected at lower levels in conventional testing. We have therefore devised a fully-revised version of the synaesthesia diagnostic tool, which compensates for this change in aging, allowing it to be robustly detected not only in younger adults, but also in older ones. In other areas of multisensory integration, we have investigated cross-sensory associations in the general (non-synaesthete) population for example in taste perception: food that is either rough- versus smooth-textured was rated as more sour versus sweet, respectively. The second half of the MULTISENSE project will further investigate these findings looking at how children with synaesthesia may differ in curriculum goals, and whether their condition is underpinned by greater sensory sensitivity. We will examine how synaesthesia affects other life-outcomes such as well-being, and whether these effects can be felt even into older age.

Contact

Sui-Mee Chan, (Research Development Officer)
Tel.: +44 1273 873448
Fax: +44 1273 678192
E-mail
Record Number: 199451 / Last updated on: 2017-06-21
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